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Mutual Rescission

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

The parties may agree to give up the duties to perform, called mutual rescission. This may be by a formal written release saying the obligor is discharged upon delivery of the writing or upon occurrence of a condition. Or an obligation may be discharged by a contract not to sue about it.

The Restatement terms this an agreement of rescission. 1 An agreement to rescind will be given effect even though partial performance has been made or one or both parties have a claim for partial breach. The agreement need not be in writing or even expressed in words. By their actions, such as failure to take steps to perform or enforce, the parties may signal their mutual intent to rescind. Andy starts to mow Anne’s lawn as they agreed. He begins the job, but it is unbearably hot. She sees how uncomfortable he is and readily agrees with him when he says, “Why don’t we just forget the whole thing?” Andy’s duty to finish mowing is discharged, as is Anne’s duty to pay Andy, either for the whole job or for the part he has done.

Business executives live by contracts, but they do not necessarily die by them. A sociologist who studied business behavior under contract discovered a generation ago—and it is still valid—that in the great majority of cases in which one party wishes to “cancel an order,” the other party permits it without renegotiation, even though the cancellation amounts to a repudiation of a contract. As one lawyer was quoted as saying,

Often business[people] do not feel they have “a contract”—rather they have an “order.” They speak of “cancelling the order” rather than “breaching our contract.” When I began practice I referred to order cancellations as breaches of contract, but my clients objected since they do not think of cancellation as wrong. Most clients, in heavy industry at least, believe that there is a right to cancel as part of the buyer-seller relationship. There is a widespread attitude that one can back out of any deal within some very vague limits. Lawyers are often surprised by this attitude. 2

This attitude is understandable. People who depend for their economic survival on continuing relationships will be loath to react to every change in plans with a lawsuit. The legal consequences of most of these cancellations are an agreement of rescission. Under UCC Section 2-720, the use of a word like “cancellation” or “rescission” does not by itself amount to a renunciation of the right to sue for breach of a provision that occurred before the rescission. If the parties mean to discharge each other fully from all duties owed, they must say so explicitly. Actions continue to speak more loudly than words, however, and in law, so can inactions. Legal rights under contracts may be lost by both parties if they fail to act; by abandoning their claims, they can affect rescission.